DURHAM — Vic Bubas, the first coach to lead Duke basketball to the Final Four and to the ACC championship, died at age 91 on Monday.
Bubas' family confirmed his death to Duke's athletics department.
The Blue Devils' coach from 1959-69, Bubas led Duke to four ACC tournament championships, including the school's first in 1960. He coached the Blue Devils to the NCAA tournament's Final Four in 1963, 1964 and 1966. He finished with a 213-67 record, a .761 winning percentage, at Duke.
Steve Vacendak, who played on the '64 and '66 Final Four teams and was the ACC tournament MVP in 1966, said Monday that Bubas deserves credit for starting Duke basketball on the path to becoming one of the nation's elite programs.
"Coach Bubas is a man who established the foundation and the culture that is Duke basketball," Vacendak said. "He's responsible for what Duke basketball has become. I think that's quite an achievement and sometimes people lose perspective about. His effort, and the coaches he brought in and the way he conducted himself, was exemplary.”
Duke's basketball history includes 20 ACC championships, 16 Final Four appearances and five national titles. Mike Krzyzewski is responsible for the bulk of them, having coached all five NCAA tournament champions and 12 of the Final Four teams in addition to leading Duke to 14 ACC tournament championships since 1980.
It all started, though, with Bubas.
"Duke Basketball lost a true legend earlier today,” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “When I first arrived at Duke, Coach Bubas gave me the best advice. Essentially, he told me to be myself and to focus solely on Duke, while not getting caught up in everything going on around us. We have tried to honor him over the years by playing a level of basketball that lived up to his very high standards, and to those of the program he built here in the 1960s. We offer our deepest sympathy to the Bubas family, particularly to his wife Tootie, as well as their friends and the multitude of great players who attended this university during Coach Bubas’ tenure. He was a terrific coach, and more importantly, a special leader who will be missed greatly.”
An N.C. State standout player for Everett Case who was twice named all-Southern Conference , Bubas was a Wolfpack assistant coach following his 1951 graduation until taking over as Duke's head coach in 1959.
Duke had only made the ACC tournament final once prior to Bubas' arrival. The Blue Devils lost that 1955 title game to N.C. State.
But Bubas took Duke's recruiting to another level, attracting top talent from throughout the country. Duke played in eight ACC title games in Bubas' 10 seasons, winning four.
His first big recruiting win was securing Art Heyman from Long Island, N.Y. Heyman was originally heading to North Carolina to play for coach Frank McGuire. After Bubas recruited him to Duke, he went to become the ACC player of the year and the national player of the year in 1963 when he helped Duke reach the Final Four for the first time.
That team also included Jeff Mullins, who Bubas recruited to Duke from Lexington, Kentucky. In 1964, with Heyman gone, Mullins was the ACC player of the year as he led Duke back to the Final Four.
In 1966, the Scranton, Pennsylvania-born Vacendak helped Duke return to the Final Four.
“Without question, like so many players he recruited at the time, he gave us an opportunity to attend a fine university to get an excellent education and develop friends," Vacendak said. "That's on top of the opportunity to play outstanding basketball at a national caliber program. And he did so in a way and a manner that was very comfortable to me and my parents.”
The Blue Devils won 20 or more games in seven of Bubas' 10 seasons as their coach before he retired in 1969. He was the ACC coach of the year three times.
Bubas joined Duke's administration, eventually becoming the school's vice president, before becoming the Sun Belt Conference's first commissioner in 1976. He held that position for 14 years. In 2007, Bubas was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Vacendak was among 80 people who gathered at a Durham hotel to celebrate Bubas' 91st birthday last January.
Vacendak joined Bucky Waters, an assistant under Bubas who replaced him as Duke's head coach, in a visit two weeks ago to have lunch with Bubas in Midlothian, Virginia. They presented Bubas with with a framed photo from his birthday party.
"It was good, really good, for us that we were able to see him just a couple of weeks ago and present him with a lot of memories in that photograph," Vacendak said.